Middle East: Nobel winner, activist urge peace
NewsNotes, January-February 2009
Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari and Israeli peace activist Jeff Halper recently urged a strong commitment from President-elect Barack Obama to Middle East peace negotiations, to help facilitate a just and lasting settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I hope that the new president of the United States … will give high priority to the Middle East conflict during his first year in office,” said Ahtisaari, former president of Finland. He said the European Union, Russia and the UN must also be seriously committed to seeking peace.
Accepting his Nobel Prize on Dec. 10 in Oslo, Ahtisaari said he disagreed with people who believe religious tensions are responsible for the Middle East crisis. “Religions themselves are peace-loving,” he said. “They can also be a constructive force in peace-building, and this also applies to the Middle East.”
“The credibility of the whole international community is at stake,” he said. “We cannot go on, year after year, simply pretending to do something to help the situation in the Middle East. We must also get results.”
Ahtisaari called for engaging women in all stages of peace processes. He also said the growing economic disparity in countries and the world is a potential cause of conflict, adding, “I believe [the] fight against poverty is also the most effective measure of countering terrorism in the long term.”
Writing Dec. 10 in the Washington Post, Halper – head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions – said defining the essential elements of a peace settlement should be the final step, not the first, of the process.
Halper says the notion of a shared Jerusalem as the capital of two states is a step forward. However, he notes that Israel has already annexed Palestinian East Jerusalem and plans to annex still more for a so-called “Greater Jerusalem.” This, he says, would isolate Palestinians in the city from the West Bank and deprive a Palestinian state of crucial economic and political resources. He adds, “Jerusalem should not only be shared, but it must be wholly integrated into the political, economic, social and cultural fabric of the Palestinian state, not simply accessible from a few bus routes.”
An Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders with “minor, reciprocal” modifications might not satisfy Palestinian demands, either, Halper says. He explains the 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem represents only a “minor” adjustment of about one percent to the 1967 borders. He also asks, “Is the exchange of 10 percent of West Bank land containing East Jerusalem, the settlement blocs, some of Palestine’s richest agricultural lands and its water resources for an equivalent amount of land in the Negev desert truly ‘reciprocal’?”
Halper also says offering to compensate Palestinians for homesteads they lost in 1948, while denying them the right of return, is destined to fail because it ignores the principle of justice. “[A]s Jews well know, victims of an injustice on the scale of the Nakba require more than merely compensation,…” he says. “Victims need the injustice they suffered to be acknowledged if the wounds are to heal and reconciliation take place.”
As president, Obama could be instrumental in bringing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations to a successful conclusion, Halper says. However, he must first make clear that ending the occupation and establishing a truly sovereign and viable Palestinian state next to a secure state of Israel is in the best interests of the U.S. The peace process must also be framed amid overarching principles of justice. Only then, Halper believes, should specific elements of a peace settlement be identified.
Ahtisaari would agree the conflict is not an intractable problem. “If we work together, we can find solutions. We should not accept any excuses from those in power,” he says. “All crises, including the one in the Middle East, can be resolved. … Peace is a question of will.”
Faith in action:
Sign an ecumenical letter found on Churches for Middle East Peace’s website, urging President-elect Obama to make Israeli-Palestinian peace an immediate priority of his administration. The deadline for signatures is Jan. 16.